Watching Felicity Jones as Miranda running through the forest on Prospera’s Island in Julie Taymor’s The Tempest I can’t help but think of Helen Mirren in her first major role in Michael Powell’s 1969 film Age of Consent. Apart from Mirren’s presence in both films and a few momentary visual similarities and a caressing devotion to images in both, I don’t think there are any great meaningful parallels to be drawn between the two films. Perhaps one could massage some plot parallels between Age of Consent and The Tempest, but that seems a stretch. I just couldn’t help feeling an association in my own mind.
A personal bias to be disclosed immediately: Helen Mirren can do no wrong. That out of the way, what to make of Taymor’s Tempest?
The obvious place to start would be the change of Prospero to Prospera, which Taymor and Mirren have acheived marvellously seamlessly. The change works and works well, bringing new emphasis to issues of the play that often are submerged and causing a bit of a paradigm shift by making the central relationship mother/daughter rather than father/daughter. As well, the parallel between Sycorax, exiled to the Island with her son, Caliban and Prospera exiled with Miranda is made so very obvious by the change, and the questions surrounding Caliban’s early companionship with Miranda, his slavery, the old issue of colonization, the contrast between black and white magic . . . so much is brought to the fore by the change of an “o” to an “a”.
As well as making the adjustments to backstory in Act I, scene 2 necessary to the sex change, Taymor has excised a large number of phrases and lines as well as splitting Act II, scene 2. I expect these decisions were made to make the project more accessible to modern audiences (and the project more palatable to the studio). On the whole, the changes and excisions are either seamless or improvements for the new medium. Certainly the splitting of the long conversation of the court figures into two scenes makes for a more punchy effect.
A quibble I can’t help feeling concerns the masque. Taymor has constructed a magical effects scene in which Prospera suddenly remembers Caliban’s plot and ends it. This is all proper, except it is absurdly short, completely without words, and only with a hint of the conjugal meaning of Shakespeare’s masque scene. It seems so odd that Taymor, the absolute Queen of Masks on stage and screen, should choose to pass over the opportunity the nuptial masque offers. In the Experts’ Commentary track on the DVD someone mentions that many today feel that the masque is “unplayable”. In my opinion, The Freewill Company this past summer put the lie to that assumption: the masque is absolutely playable today and it can be accessible and beautiful. I wish Taymor had put more/some effort into her vision of the masque.
Ben Wishaw is exquisite as Ariel. Although his major manifestations (the nymph and the harpy, the latter an absolutely rivetting scene) are distinctly female, a male Ariel (as Shakespeare wrote him) produces a fascinating sexual tension with Mirren’s Prospera, a tension often produced in modern productions by making Ariel female. But the power relationship between a male master and a female slave is much different than that between a female master and a male slave, something which also affects the relationship between Prospera and Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). The physically powerful Caliban would have no trouble overwhelming Prospera were it not for her magic, but Prospero the man might be more of a challenge. Prospera’s power is magnified by her being a female master to male servants.
The cast is fairly uniformly tremendous with a few small issues. I find Reeve Carney’s Ferdinand quite dull, and Felicity Jones as Miranda is appealing, but I have trouble seeing her physically as Helen Mirren’s daughter. The Court characters are perfect. Tom Conti’s Gonzalo is marvellous, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Conti. David Strathern is marvellously, and to me, surprisingly noble as Alonso, the King of Naples. Alan Cumming nails the malleability of Sebastian and Chris Cooper as Antonio does a wonderful job, particularly in some of the backchat bits while Gonzalo and Alonso are speaking. And he is physically very believable as Mirren’s brother.
The clowns are thankfully absolutely not “Disney.” Alfred Molina is brilliant as Stephano. No surprise there. Despite my unaccountable antipathy to Russel Brand, he does a workmanlike job of Trinculo. The Gabardine Scene is aranged much like every other production, and the scene where the fancy cloths are found is much like the same scene in Mazursky’s remarkable Tempest, but never do the three sink to the disgrace of Disney clowns. Please, please, please, all companies considering Shakespeare, go to school on Taymor’s clowns and shun everything of Disney. There is so much more in these “minor” characters.
Djimon Hounsou is incomparable as Caliban, so evocative of so very much! He is so grounded in the soil of the island, so physical and graceful, his voice so rich, both in tone and accent. Somehow the use of drunkenness to control Caliban is a more real reference to colonialism than it is in most productions I’ve seen. Seeing Hounsou’s very beautiful African face being plied with liquor by a fat drunken white guy is so depressingly terrifying to me. Caliban has so much more nobility than any of the European characters, including Prospera. Hounsou’s cries of “Freedom! at the end of the Gabardine scene, although tragically misplaced, should finally expunge any filmic memory of an unmentionable other blue-faced cinematic cry of “Freedom”.
The costume design and makeup are everything we might expect from Taymor. The Court characters are dressed in a fascinating combination of Elizabethan cut, black leather, and zippers. They are a biker gang pretending to be Lords. Nicely done. Prospera is all earth and organic, a sort of Gaia figure. I am not sure, however, that her magic cloak works — it looks like a collection of melted plastic bottles. Miranda is a virginal Diana, or, more appropriate to the tempest, Virgil’s Camilla, daughter of Metabus the original exiled single-father, running barefoot over the tops of the grain in the fields. Her short, dishevelled homespun dress is perfect. And Caliban: a foot in two worlds, white/Black, nature/civilization. But, is Nature dominant? Wait for the end.
There is no party as ends Mazursky’s Tempest (a scene later lifted entire by Mamma Mia, by the way). Although still to come are the release of Ariel, the destruction of Prospera’s staff and books, and the epilogue (as a pop song over the end credits — couldn’t Taymor have found Matthew Broderick to do it Ferris Bueller style?), here is how the film ends for me:
Caliban’s last line is left out. He leaves Prospera’s cell alone, in charge at last. No more magic. No more politics. Just life. Nature.